The western Asian nation of Iran is on the cusp of expanding its reach all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel’s northern border – a drive that will make its nuclear pursuit, ballistic missile development and terror sponsorship that much more dangerous to the United States and its regional allies.
This budding hegemony is a product of Iran’s growing presence in, or influence over, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is being accomplished through Tehran’s own political or military activities, through the growing regional activities of its most important terrorist client, Hezbollah, and through Shiite militias that are pursuing Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s progress, which is setting off alarm bells not just in Jerusalem but in Riyadh and other Sunni Arab capitals as well, is largely the result of a U.S. decision to focus its regional military efforts on pushing the Islamic State group out of Syria and Iraq without caring about, or focusing sufficiently on, the ability of Iran or its proxy forces to fill the vacuum in both countries.
What the United States is missing is a military and diplomatic strategy to defeat the Islamic State group without leaving Iran well-positioned to pursue its grand designs for the region – which include destroying Israel and replacing hostile Sunni governments with friendlier alternatives.
Iran borders Iraq and Turkey to its west. Iraq borders Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to its west. Thus, Iran’s growing influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon extends its reach all the way to the Mediterranean Sea (which Syria and Lebanon border to their west) and Israel (which Lebanon borders to its south).
The implications of Iran’s geographic expansion are ominous. It will enable the radical regime in Tehran to send arms more easily to, for instance, besieged Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, as well as to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which is based in Lebanon but currently teaming with Iran and Russia to prop up the Assad regime. And it will allow Iran to implant its own clerical army, the Revolutionary Guards, more easily in Syria and elsewhere.
Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a fierce rival of, and counter-balance to, the Islamic Republic. Today, however, Iranian-backed militias are gaining ground as they fight alongside Iraqi forces in Anbar province and in the battle to retake the town of Tal Afar from the Islamic State group.
Syria has been an Iranian ally and terror partner since the days of al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and little has changed. Syrian troops are now working with the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah and an assortment of Shiite militias to defeat not only the Islamic State group but also U.S.-backed anti-government rebels – all to keep the country’s brutal dictator in power. What was once a partnership of equals between Iran and Syria, however, has evolved into a patron-client relationship that helps to enhance Iran’s sway.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Iran is moving to build its own weapons factories, enabling Tehran to more easily arm Hezbollah for its next war with Israel. One factory in the country’s north reportedly will build Fateh 110 missiles, which have a range of 190 miles and can threaten most of the territory of the Jewish state. Iran’s assistance only amplifies the growing threat from Hezbollah. The terror group, which fought a war with Israel back in 2006, when it had an arsenal of some 15,000 rockets, already has a far more sophisticated stash that numbers an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 missiles.
Iran’s emerging reach into the Mediterranean is occurring while it continues to hide the ball on its nuclear program. In recent days, Iranian leaders have reiterated that Tehran won’t give nuclear inspectors access to military sites and warned that, if the United States withdraws from the 2015 global nuclear agreement, it can resume enriching uranium to 20 percent (a short step to weapons-grade levels) within five days.
In addition, Iran continues to ignore global concerns by testing increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. It’s also expanding its conventional weaponry for potential battles on land or at sea.
Israeli officials have expressed their grave concerns about Iran’s geographic expansionism to U.S. officials, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently traveled to Sochi to speak with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the same subject. The Jewish state, which on multiple occasions has bombed convoys of weapons destined for Hezbollah, opposes any settlement of Syria’s civil war that allows Iran to retain its presence in Syria (particularly near the Golan Heights, which lie on Israel’s northern border).
Unfortunately, a U.S. effort to defeat the Islamic State group that lacks a strategy to simultaneously contain Iran will prove a Pyrrhic victory at best. It will replace one large problem (a ruthless terrorist group) with a far larger one (a nuclear-pursuing, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking regime with far more room to operate).
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.